I’m fascinated by dried chickpeas. They seem so impenetrable. Rolling them around in the palm of my hand, I find it hard to believe they can become real food. Ceci neri, the black ones, seem especially unlikely. They’re pitch black, hard as steel, and look like lumpy stones. They’re grown in Puglia, a region close to my heart. I can just imagine my ancestors cooking up a pot of these little rocks in their dirt-floored house in their poverty-stricken town, maybe serving them with a thread of olive oil and a side of tooth-cracking taralli. As romantic as that sounds, boy am I glad they got out of there.
All dried cecis take time to reconstitute, but the black ones require real patience. I soaked them overnight and then cooked them low and slow, partially covered, in lots of water laced with a drizzle of olive oil and a bay leaf. After about three hours they were finally tender but still holding their shape, which I appreciated; it’s so frustrating when beans crumble or turn mushy. The cooking water was black, and the chickpeas were still black. I guess they have a lot of black in them. And they gave off an aroma like roasted chestnuts. That was nice. If you see a bag of ceci neri, pick them up. They’ll liven up your kitchen. Just remember that they take a while. I used about two cooked cups for this soup, but I made the entire bag, not a bad idea considering how long they take to cook. I made a chickpea and shrimp salad the next night
Once I had them cooked, I was thinking I’d put together a traditional minestrone using them with a variety of late summer vegetables. But then I decided I wanted to rein it in. No tomatoes, no string beans, just yellow and butternut squash. I guess I was feeling the summer-to-fall transition in the air.
The soup looked beautiful in a spooky sort of way, with all those little black balls floating around amid the yellow and orange squash. And its taste was unexpectedly rich, partly from the ceci neri and partly because I included pancetta. You really can’t go wrong with pork fat.
I decided on using chickpeas for this soup because they have lots of fiber and a low glycemic index, so they fit in nicely with my attempt to eat less quickly digested carbohydrates.
I hope you enjoy this recipe.
Minestra with Summer and Fall Squash and Ceci Neri
For the Pesto:
½ cup very fresh walnut halves
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
1 cup basil leaves, washed and dried
½ cup parsley leaves, washed and dried
½ cup grated Piave or grana Padano cheese
About ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
For the soup:
Extra-virgin olive oil
A thick chunk of pancetta, cut into small dice (about ½ cup or so)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 garlic clove, sliced
About 2 cups cooked ceci neri, drained (see cooking instructions above)
A few large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
1 fresh bay leaf
A few big grindings of nutmeg
1½ cups butternut squash, cubed small
1 quart light chicken broth
1½ cups small cubed yellow summer squash
To make the pesto: Put the walnuts and the garlic in a food processor, and pulse until well chopped. Add the basil and the parsley, and pulse until everything looks bright green. Now add the grated cheese, the olive oil, and a little salt. Give it a few more pulses, adding a little more oil if needed to loosen it. Transfer to a small bowl, and cover the top with plastic wrap so it doesn’t darken.
To make the soup: Drizzle a little olive oil into a large soup pot. Add the pancetta, and cook until crisp. Add the onion and the carrot, and let them soften. Add the garlic and the black chick peas. Season with the thyme, bay leaf, nutmeg, salt, and pepper, and sauté for about 3 minutes.
Add the butternut squash, and sauté a minute or so. Add the chicken broth, and bring it to a boil. Turn the heat down a touch, add the yellow squash, and cook at a lively bubble, uncovered, until all the vegetables are tender, adding warm water if needed to cover everything. Turn off the heat, and let the soup sit about an hour (this will help blend all the flavors and further soften the cecis).
When you’re ready to serve, reheat the soup. Check for seasoning. Ladle out bowlfuls, and top each one with a dollop of pesto.